Thursday, March 12, 2015

Finding Leverage in Foreignness

Each one of the 534 “Gravity Purple” tent cards is arranged perfectly. Between 19 and 22 slightly angled cards around each U-Shaped table, in 19 rooms in which English, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and French will be spoken. In each English language room, the countries are numerous – England, India, South Africa, United States, Australia, Nigeria, and on and on. There is a tent card for each seat, and on each tent card is a call name, full name and one of the hundreds of countries from which the “mini U.N.” of my participants hail.

The personalized tent cards set in advance of each of the ten sessions – a new bright color for each set – seem unnecessary. The people who will be seated in these rooms are international business professionals who have personalized itineraries for this training tucked inside their breast pockets and brief cases – but it is a part of the experience.

It is my job, as a training professional, to research and write the curriculum that is presented in each of these classrooms, but it is also my job to consider the learning environment and make the experience – from the locations of the coffee breaks to the spacing of the notes pages in the workbooks – the most conducive to learning. I also stalk the halls in my freshly pressed suit smiling sincerely and answering questions from all corners.

This is what I’m paid to do – and I’m pretty good at it.


Yesterday afternoon I stared at my computer. My eyes straining as I took notes, searched images online, and wrote polite emails for hours. My mind was racing trying to coordinate all the pieces necessary for my project, my pulse accelerating as the time slipped away and my deadlines loomed.

I needed the baby giraffe and the baby elephant to fall in line.
I needed a font that was a little softer and warmer.
I also needed sleeping space for ten, not 8, and someone to take ownership of the games and activities.

I was planning both a baby shower and a bachelorette party (for two separate and awesome women in my life) and the anxiety was driving me to the edge.

I am a person who assembles events for a living, but when it comes to designing an invitation for a baby shower or booking a cottage for ten in southwest Michigan, I lose my mind. I assume I am stressed because no one likes to bring their work home with them, but as my anxiety grows, I realize the hurdle here is the foreignness.

I feel like I’m planning a Taiwanese Lantern Festival celebration. My internal monologue screams, “Shouldn't they have asked someone who was from Taiwan?! What do I know about this?” I do not understand the drive to have children nor to engage in the traditional aspects of courtship and marriage. I do not speak the language.

There’s not so much to planning these celebrations that I cannot learn. A few emails, a couple of Google searches and a click or two in an online party store and the whole thing is settled. The problem is not the task itself; it is my inability to wrap my mind around the concepts. “Foreign” is the way I feel in a lot of situations. I have spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. Like I’m “passing” for one of the crowd, but that I could be found out at any minute. A little too queer to be like the other girls. Planning these “traditional” events falls outside of my natural instincts and makes me feel lost.


The purple tent cards and seats are perfectly arranged, and the final session of this event begins. Hundreds of men and women flood the halls, checking their itineraries and looking for the room that has their preset tent card. They shake hands with their new classmates and greet each other – sometimes in their second, third or fourth language. They exchange business cards and trinkets from their home nations. They've come from all over the world to San Diego, this foreign place, with the excitement of children and the intention to learn from one another. In this environment, the state of being foreign – of being other – is the benefit. This new situation will give each person the greatest opportunity to learn and grow.


The final touches on the jungle themed invite come together, and the deposit on a cottage for ten clears my checking account. I too can grow from my foreignness.

Now where’s my tent card?

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